Biting the watchdog

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When governments and their duly appointed protectors of public probity begin to feud, the result is always, lamentably predictable: The poison infects the body politic, and no one is safe from the vile cynicism that now, too often, afflicts our democratic institutions.

What, for example, are we to make of the on-again-off-again dispute between the New Brunswick government and its auditor general Kim MacPherson about their proper, respective roles in the province?

The former wants to clarify what she should be able to do, to whom she should be able to talk, and how she should be able to investigate matters that cross her desk as the province’s chief forensic accountant.

The latter wants to clarify what that actual clarification means.

The issue is the new, proposed Inquiries Act, a bill the Gallant government hopes will settle any lingering confusion about the operational independence of its legislative watchdogs (the auditor general, the provincial ombudsman and a handful of others).

But was there any real confusion, until now?

A report in Brunswick News states that the new bill, “introduced by the Liberal government last week includes specific provisions that could restrict reporting on public hearings and even exclude the public from attending. . .Now, the province’s auditor general is questioning the changes.”

In an interview with the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, Ms. MacPherson declared that she has concerns with one section of the proposed legislation – specifically the one that removes her authority as a provincial “commissioner”, a position which currently endows her with the same powers as a Court of Queen’s Bench judge to launch investigations and inaugurate hearings on her own steam.

As she said, “I have concerns with repealing that section (of the existing Act).” Furthermore, she stated, she worries about the coupling of one line in the legislation that gives the A-G genuine commissioner authority with another that appears to insist that these powers, nevertheless, defer to government direction. In other words, Premier Gallant and his relevant cabinet ministers seem to be saying: Investigate, but only if we initiate and approve the object of your scrutiny. “For independence reasons, I thought that section should be decoupled so that the auditor general, when and if (he/she) thought it was necessary, only in very, very extreme circumstances, would invoke the powers of inquiry,” Ms. MacPherson noted.

What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with an independent officer of the government – mandated to keep a watchful eye on all things the public is owed a right and a need to know about the fiscal apparatus of its society – asking important questions, and getting answers?

Conversely, what’s right about an elected political regime curtailing the scope and effectiveness of these duties simply because these duties remain, without partisan or bureaucratic meddling, independent?

Now, as if to add further mud to the spring run-off around Freddy Beach, the Gallant government has decided, in estimable wisdom, not to decide. It’s sent the whole issue off to the law amendments committee where bills of this sort go to be remodeled, or, as often as not, to die.

Says Attorney General Serge Rousselle: “This is not a priority for our government. . .That said, in the spirit of collaboration and to listen to what everyone wants to say, I will propose an amendment to refer the Inquiries Act to the standing committee on law amendments.”

Not a priority for this government?

Who, then, wins under these circumstances? Ms. MacPherson? The provincial government?

Certainly, it can’t be the voters who, witnessing these shenanigans, might be forgiven for the cynicism they feel rising daily and all around them.

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